El Ceibo—CHWs respond to a humanitarian crisis

El Ceibo humanitarian crisis: CHWs were there at the beginning to help.



This long post describes the events that took place over several weeks in August and early September 2021. The US and Mexico decided to deposit thousands of Central American asylum seekers and other migrants in the tiny border town in El Ceibo, a community our team of CHWs has served for years. While previously they occasionally saw migrants heading north, this was the first mass expulsion of migrants back into Central America. This is the story of CHWs responding to an unprecedented incident. They truly made a big difference.


August 13, 2021

We have identified an emerging humanitarian crisis (as if we needed another one!) in Petén. Migrants to the US are being dumped into the tiny border town of El Ceibo, Guatemala without any way to get home. The Community Health Worker in El Ceibo tells us that the migrants are hungry, dirty, and disoriented, unsure how to get home to Honduras and El Salvador. They come seeking her help for illness and for advice and information.


Migrants find themselves stranded abroad by new US policy (AP, August 12, 2021)


Below: Mexican border guard points migrants toward Guatemala. Hundreds of migrants have been bussed to the border this week and dropped in the tiny border town of El Ceibo, which has no infrastructure to cope with the influx.



August 14, 2021

Clutching meager belongings in plastic garbage bags, migrant families with small children stream across the border into Guatemala. They are hungry and hot and have nowhere to stay in this tiny border town. Most are from places hundreds of miles away. Upon crossing the border, they are told to “start walking“.


August 14, 2021

Estrella is the Community Health Worker trained by Petén Health. She has worked out of her home in El Ceibo for years, where hundreds of deported migrants have been arriving this week. Many of the children are suffering from diarrhea and dehydration, and she is doing her best to nurse them back to health. She is also feeding as many people as she is able. (Photo is of Estrella pre-pandemic, when life was easier in so many ways!)


The Programa de Salud team reported “visitamos la casa de la Promotora Estrella, donde la encontramos con uno de sus niños en sus brazos y se podía notar en sus rostro el cansancio por el trabajo que tiene que realizar para sustentar su familia y ayudar a los migrantes que llegan a su casa, enfermos y con hambre. Ella nos comentó que los migrantes llegan a su casa buscando apoyo sobre todo comida. La vimos muy impactada.”


Translation: We visited the home of the CHW Estrella, where we found her with one of her children in her arms and you could see on her face the fatigue from the work she has to do to support her family and help the migrants who arrive at her home, sick and hungry. She told us that migrants come to her house seeking support, especially food. We observed that she was very weary.”

At this point we have begun providing funds to the Programa de Salud (our team in Petén) to cover the costs of feeding hundreds of hungry travelers and to provide medicine and supplies for basic health needs. Responding to an urgent request, our donors are tremendously supportive to this effort, making it possible to set up an outdoor kitchen to serve two meals a day.


August 14, 2021

Our Community Health Workers continue assessing the need and providing food, clean water and of course medicine. Many of the children are sick. 😢 Large and small donations are received daily, making the CHWs’ rapid response possible.


Thank you for your continuing concern and kindness. 💚


August 15, 2021

The sign reads “The communities and Petén Health invite you to a breakfast.” A companion sign read, “solidarity has no borders.”


The Community Health Workers in Petén quickly organized to provide a hearty breakfast for the hungry migrants streaming into the little border town of El Ceibo. While this doesn’t solve their bigger problems, we hope that having full stomachs makes the next step in their journey a little easier to bear.


August 18, 2021: We continue feeding people.

Thanks to the donations you've sent us, Petén Health has been able to get funds to the Community Health Workers, so they can provide a meal of beans and tortillas to the migrants who are continuing to be forced across the border into Guatemala. This is not our mission, but we can't turn our backs on hungry people on our literal doorstep.


There is only a small shelter to accommodate migrants in El Ceibo, not equipped for hundreds a day. Our team in Petén deserves a huge thank you for organizing so rapidly to meet critical needs. We recognize and so grateful for the support and solidarity of those contributing to provide the meals and medical assistance. We couldn't do it without you.


August 28, 2021

Hundreds of Central American migrants and asylum seekers continue to be bused across the Guatemalan border each day since August 4, 2021. Dumped into the tiny, remote border town where Community Health Workers are located, they are far from home, hungry, and tired. So we started feeding them.


This is not our mission, but since we are the ONLY aid organization on the ground in the region, it feels like our obligation. The donations allow us to provide over 200 meals each day to these weary travelers. We welcome your ongoing support at https://www.petenhealth.org/donations.



August 28, 2021

Before eating the meal that Petén Health’s team of CHWs provided, these men joined together to give thanks.


September 1, 2021: Update

As of today, we’ve spent $1,325 to feed 200 people a day for two weeks. Providing meals to hungry travelers was the humane, tangible action we could take when faced with this overwhelming problem. This is a necessary example of international cooperation at the ground level.




September 1, 2021: Getting the word out

Working the phones for two weeks, Petén Health volunteers in the US have been trying to alert international aid organizations and media outlets to the El Ceibo situation.


Independently, reporter Jorge Valencia of the news program “The World” on public radio went to cover the El Ceibo situation and produced this lovely story about Estrella, our devoted CHW who lives in El Ceibo.


The very generous support of our donors provided for the meals he describes and for medicines and other necessities. It’s one window on all Estrella and other CHWs have done, offering food and medical care - for blistered feet and dehydrated children—to these abandoned travelers.


The woman feeding migrants in this rural Guatemalan border outpost (The World, August 31, 2021)



September 7, 2021: A Shift in Policy, Our response comes to an end.


This week the El Ceibo team alerted us to a change to what has become the routine at the Guatemala-Mexico border. Many buses pulled up, as usual, but no one got off. Rumors were flying. CHWs were told that the buses were now heading to the border with Honduras, 14 hours away. The community health workers managed to get permission to board the buses and provide travelers with the meals they had prepared.

We are learning that new policies have been enacted, apparently through a negotiation between the US and Guatemala. See the Reuters report below for more details. There are a host of issues that this does not solve, but it does suspend inhumane abandonment of migrants in a remote and unknown place. Our best wishes that people find safety and a semblance of home wherever they wind up.

Finally we return to the solidarity and generosity of our supporters in the US and elsewhere in the world who have made this emergency response possible and the CHWs who put in the extra hours and efforts involved in organizing the meals and other support. Thank you a todos.



After U.S. meeting, Guatemala sees end to remote border deportations (Reuters, September 2, 2021)